One may wonder how a youth conservation and natural resources education program such as Water Rocks fits under the auspices of one of Iowa State University’s oldest programs, Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering. From the beginning, Water Rocks and its partner program Iowa Learning Farms have been part of the ABE organization, and according to department chair, Steve Mickelson, rightly so.
“Since 1905, agricultural engineering has been a foundational program at ISU and the department has grown over time to incorporate related fields of study, including agricultural systems technology, biological systems engineering and industrial technology — fields which are involved in nearly all aspects of Iowa’s critical industries and initiatives,” Mickelson says.
“Focused on agriculture, related industries and the environment, ABE students are involved with off-road equipment design, animal production systems, facility design, water quality, occupational safety, and land and water resource engineering. Water Rocks fits in with all of the programs, but has its strongest relationship with land and water resource engineering.”
Teaching natural resources
Water Rocks is part of the ABE Extension effort, providing science-based youth education for students across Iowa. Program topics include watersheds, pollinators, soil, natural resources and water quality. Nearly everything at ABE touches on or influences the environment and shared natural resources such as water. Water Rocks takes the latest information from ABE and ISU programming directly into classrooms in ways that spark interest and support learning.
In regard to youth outreach and education being a part of ABE, Mickelson says, “I think it makes a lot of sense. We are all involved in some level of marketing ABE programs and practices. Our Extension and outreach programs address K-12 students, as well as farmers and industries. Water Rocks is a great tool to showcase the value of research programs to a young audience, which opens new opportunities to fill the pipeline of future students.”
Helping people understand issues
When Water Rocks brings students and teachers to the ISU campus for programs and tours, it gives them a firsthand practical view of research and how it works. “These visits get young people excited about areas that they can pursue in education or career paths,” he adds.
Mickelson explains that his philosophy on outreach and Extension breaks down into two related but different approaches to sharing the value and resources of ABE. He notes that Extension is more about putting actionable information and research results into the hands of those who will use the information to improve practices, processes and outcomes.
“The merit and success of Extension is measured on the positive impacts resulting from field application of our research,” he says. “I consider Water Rocks an effective outreach vehicle for promoting what is being done at ISU and ABE, but it is much more difficult to draw a straight line to specific and measurable results from outreach efforts.”
Water Rocks has a robust evaluation and feedback process to ensure the programs meet the needs of students and educators. This includes alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted by many Iowa schools, and ongoing reviews to ensure students are getting optimal benefits from all programming. Garnering positive reviews from educators, administrators, students and parents statewide, Water Rocks is recognized as an effective premier education program.
“The most easily recognized positive result of Water Rocks outreach is a correlation to generating interest in agricultural and biosystems fields among Iowa’s youth — interest that can potentially translate into future ISU enrollments,” Mickelson says.
Igniting interest among elementary and middle school students using music, games, hands-on activities and rousing on-your-feet assemblies are core to the Water Rocks programming initiatives. While this may seem incongruent with hands-on engineering and technical implementation of systems and solutions, Mickelson sees the overarching objectives of a land-grant institution such as ISU being well-served by the Water Rocks and ABE combination.
Reaching out to all age groups
“Throughout ABE, there is an appreciation for the success Water Rocks has achieved in reaching out to and educating students who may not be engaged by a more traditional research results presentation,” Mickelson says. “We pride ourselves on being a case study in what a land-grant institution should be by conducting and publishing meaningful research to all age groups and constituencies — research that will be used to improve things in Iowa and beyond.”
Mickelson is a strong proponent of Water Rocks and has observed its programming at field days, participated in fundraising efforts and even contributed his voice talents to some Water Rocks videos. He remains delighted for Water Rocks to be a part of ABE and is eager to see where the program will next take ABE research results.
“We’ve obviously been through some dramatic challenges over the past few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but from this unprecedented situation we are seeing some new avenues for outreach coming to the fore that hadn’t been given much attention before,” he says. “Water Rocks has shown great flexibility and innovation in taking their messages and content virtual with new video programming, online challenges promoting outdoor activities and connection with nature, and adaptation of content for online presentation.”
More online, virtual presentations
Understanding that K-12 schools are thirsty for educational content to bolster curricula and provide outside voices in the classroom, Water Rocks is reaching out to schools with program and presentation options that can comply with most classroom restrictions and conditions.
“While it hasn’t been a stated goal of Water Rocks in the past, enriching online and virtual presentation of science- and research-based outreach and education is something that could take Water Rocks beyond Iowa’s borders,” Mickelson says. “Without the cost and logistics of teams traveling to schools, Water Rocks could go global! It will be exciting to see such positive outcomes from the challenges of 2020.”
Pierce is an Extension program specialist with a focus on water quality with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks.